The Virtues of Diplomacy

by Henry Precht

Diplomats are normally seen as mild, perhaps timid people associated with tea sipping and good manners. I could (barely) have passed for one when I was working on Iran in the State Department during the 1979-80 Iran hostage crisis. About mid-way into that seemingly endless contest of national wills, the Carter administration decided to severe relations with Iran.

I called the chief of the Iranian embassy in DC into my office to receive the expulsion order. But I had to make conversation with him while the official papers were being finished. Our tense exchange of views climaxed with my use of a foul, barnyard adjective to describe his argument.

After the Iranian told CBS I had insulted him, the incident made it onto the national nightly news. In a flash I became a hero to thousands of Americans frustrated by the administration’s inability to resolve the hostage crisis. Tons of mail descended on me, including two proposals of marriage from California and a medal from the national police association. I received my fifteen minutes of fame: finally, a plain-speaking tough guy had stood up for the USA!

I tell this tale to make a mild-mannered point. The public usually prefers a show of pointless strength in our foreign relations over quiet, persistent negotiations that might achieve positive, long-term results. The patient diplomat is weak, not rough enough, and he doesn’t make the enemy angry.

Look around the globe: who are our enemies? North Korea is a good starting place for despicable targets. Then, there’s China and Russia (except when we need their help). Bashar al-Assad’s Syria is also in that category even though it’s on our side fighting a terrible enemy, the Islamic State (ISIS or IS).

And, decade after decade, Iran is near the top of the list. We customarily use nasty talk when referring to the deceitful, hostile Iranians. Although we are having great difficulty with IS, Hillary Clinton rejects the idea of Iranian troops joining in: “Would you ask an arsonist to help put out the fire.”

The Republicans are as one in attacking the nuclear accord that Secretary of State John Kerry negotiated even though it prevents Iran from acquiring nukes for 10-15 years. They criticize the swap of prisoners, rather than being pleased that our men are free in exchange for some minor Iranian offenders. When the US agreed to pay an old debt as approved by arbitrators, Republicans condemned the agreement (even though the administration negotiated substantial savings). Iran quickly released American sailors who strayed into Persian Gulf territorial waters. Relief and thanks from Trump and company? Nope: just the usual accusatory bile.

The tough truth is that Iran is a convenient soccer ball for our politicians to kick around, even though such kicking scores few points. Another painful truth is that Iran is closer to the US on many issues than are other “allies” in the region. Certainly Iran’s human rights record is terrible. But compare it with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and our other friends, and Tehran excels. The imperfect Iranian democracy is far more advanced than our Arab buddies. Same for the treatment of women compared to the Arab monarchies. Same for popular attitudes towards the US: Iranians outdo most Arabs in their regard for our people (if not our government’s policies).

Iranian leaders have said some harsh things about Israel (for instance, that the nation will disappear from the pages of history). But despite Israeli propaganda, Iran has never threatened the Jewish state with attack or destruction. Iranian missile tests are provocative, but so are the threats of violence that remain on the table of Israeli and American leaders.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his group of liberal reformers are working to transform Iranian society and politics and weaken the out-of-date revolutionary hardliners. They aspire to turn Iran into a more normal country integrated into the world community. Americans ought to welcome these efforts and this goal. It is contrary to our interests for politicians and pundits constantly to demonize our former enemy. It is also usually in error.

We should commend President Obama for many—not all—of the things he has planned or accomplished in his foreign relations. Cuba is another example like Iran where the president persisted despite the “tough-minded” haters. Obama is a problem solver, not one to aggravate old wounds. I dread to think what a Republican successor might do to his achievements—unless they learn somehow to speak softly and enjoy a cup of tea.

Henry Precht

Henry Precht, a retired Foreign Service Officer, worked mainly in the Middle East. His assignments included the Arab-Israel Desk after the 1967 war, four years in Tehran as political-military officer, in charge of the State Department Iran Desk during the revolution and hostage crisis, and two tours in Egypt – Alexandria in the 1960s and deputy ambassador in Cairo 1981-85. Precht speaks and writes on the region, and has published a book of short stories, A Diplomat’s Progress.



  1. You want to write a one sided story of your party affiliation accomplishment, that’s your right. But to distort reality for the benefit of one party over the other is pure political game played by all politicians, you certainly have not shed any more light than other analysts on diplomatic accomplishment, not withstanding the fact that the last 8 years we have seen more deterioration in world affairs and less security of our future. What people expect from a world power is for the world power to act as one in bringing stability to the world and not giving the impression of being weak and ineffective. Mistakes have been made by prior administrations, they are not supposed to be compounded by lack of resolves and poor insights from less effective leadership and erratic diplomacy.
    As we say in French: A bon entendeur, salut!

  2. “I dread to think what a Republican successor might do to his achievements—unless they learn somehow to speak softly and enjoy a cup of tea.”

    And I am definitely not alone in also dreading what the likely Democratic successor might do. We already know that the US-Israel relationship will vastly improve, and the American taxpayer can enjoy hiking up the amount of its annual gift of aid to Bibi and his henchmen. But if Iran can be perceived as doing something that should trigger the return of sanctions and “all options on the table” – Bibi can help with that – then that will likely happen too.

    (Does Hillary even drink tea?)

  3. “Would you ask an arsonist to help put out the fire.”
    Is Clinton preempting any possibility of being doused with the same question?
    She has set the world on fire on many occasions.

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